In early 2002, the U.S. decided to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein and his brutal regime.

Sketchy claims of weapons of mass destruction notwithstanding, the Iraqi military was a potent adversary and one of the largest armies in the world. The U.S.-led coalition opted to invade from the south and head north toward Bagdad.

As the defender, the Iraqis had the advantage, so U.S. planners sought to divide Iraqi forces with a feint from the north, which meant working with the semi-autonomous Kurds.

Map of Kurdish populations in Iraq Turkey Iran
A map of Kurdish-inhabited areas. (CIA)

Long defiant of Saddam’s regime, the Iraqi Kurds were a good choice for a partner force. But the U.S. first had to persuade them — a task made harder by the U.S.’s previous broken promises, especially during the Gulf War in 1991.

To persuade, train, and lead those Kurdish fighters, the U.S. sent in a joint special-operations and intelligence-community force composed of Green Berets and CIA paramilitary officers.

Later reinforced by a few Delta Force operators, British Special Boat Service (SBS) commandos, and some conventional units, Task Force Viking never exceeded 400 commandos, but it led roughly 50,000 Kurdish Peshmerga fighters against some 150,000 Iraqi troops from armored, infantry, and elite Republican Guard divisions.

Their contribution to the swift, 30-day defeat of Saddam, was pivotal.

Earning Trust

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A U.S. soldier on a walkie-talkie with Kurdish Peshmerga fighters on the outskirts of the Iraqi village of al-Nazimiya, April 3, 2003. (Photo by Joseph Barrak/AFP via Getty Images)

In early 2002, the first CIA officers infiltrated Kurdistan and alerted the Kurds of the U.S. government’s intention to insert commandos.

That summer, a larger CIA paramilitary team, led by Sam Faddis, inserted and started working with the Kurds. They didn’t know it at the time, but some of these CIA officers would stay on the ground for close to a year.

As March 19, 2003 — d-day for the invasion — approached, Green Berets from the 10th Special Forces Group joined the CIA officers. Green Berets primarily specialize in training and leading local troops through unconventional-warfare and foreign-internal-defense operations.

The mission for these Special Forces and CIA paramilitary teams was to link up with friendly Kurds, conduct strategic reconnaissance and sabotage operations, and prepare the operational environment for follow-on special operations and conventional forces.

The Americans had to assess, recruit, and train the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters they would lead against Iraqi forces.

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U.S. Army Green Berets teach Kurdish Peshmerga members how to conduct indirect fire. (U.S. Army Special Operations Command)

But the special operations and CIA teams had a secondary mission: locate and assess the danger posed by Ansar al-Islam, a Sunni Islamic terrorist group associated with (but not part of) al-Qaeda, that was located in the region.

Ansar al-Islam terrorists were located in the far north of Iraq, close to the Iranian border, and posed a potential danger to the U.S.-Kurdish flank.

U.S. commandos and intelligence officers developed a rapport with the Kurds and began training them.

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Everything seemed to be going well until Turkey, a NATO ally, jeopardized the operation by not only forbidding U.S. ground forces from using its territory to invade Iraq — the Army’s 4th Infantry Division was supposed to sweep in from the north — but also by banning U.S. military flights from using Turkish airspace.

Turkey’s decision increased the infiltration distance for the follow-on special-operations teams from 250 to 1,000 miles. Those teams now had to make either a 3.5-hour low-level flight from Romania or fly in from the south, close to Iraq’s formidable anti-aircraft umbrella.

Behind Enemy Lines

Task Force Viking Iraq insertion route map
The insertion route for the follow-on forces. (U.S. Army Special Operations Command)

In the day before the invasion began, dozens of U.S.-trained Kurdish teams infiltrated Iraqi lines and conducted strategic reconnaissance and sabotage operations.

As the invasion began, the U.S. commandos led their Kurdish partners into the fray. Using the already proven combination of special operations and close air support, Task Force Viking pounded the Iraqis.

The British SBS frogmen, however, faced difficulties when their small force — which worked with the Kurds but focused on harassing Iraqi forces — was compromised by vastly superior Iraqi forces, and they had to fight their way out.

“To tell you the truth, we didn’t expect the Iraqis to put up such a fight. We didn’t believe they had it in them,” a former British SBS operator told Insider. “So it was quite a shock for us to face such resistance.”

“In our tactical retreat, we lost some vehicles … and some people used this as an excuse to belittle us, but that’s utter rubbish. They weren’t there” to see “60-odd guys against tens of thousands,” the former SBS operator said.

US special operations soldier in Kirkuk Iraq
A U.S. soldier in Kirkuk, which Kurdish fighters and U.S. special operations soldiers captured on April 10, 2003. (Photo by Patrick Barth/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, behind the Kurdish lines, Green Berets and Peshmerga fighters attacked Ansar al-Islam’s mountain stronghold, capturing it after a fierce fight.

A Delta Force assault squadron also played a role in the feint, coming in from the west. The Delta operators were independent of Task Force Viking, but they had similar goals.

“The initial days were crazy. We had a lot of freedom and did a lot of old-school commando stuff, much like in the Gulf War, roaming the desert, making feints, and striking where the Iraqis didn’t expect us from,” a retired Delta Force operator told Insider.

In true commando style, the Delta operators were there to “develop the situation” and harass the Iraqis in any possible. They ambushed military convoys and hit suspected sites of weapons of mass destruction, every time coming up with a dry hole.

“Although there was some scrutiny from the top, we had good leadership on the ground, like ‘Panther,’ who covered for us and let us fly, as good officers and NCOs [non-commissioned officers] should,” the retired Delta operator said, using the nickname for Lt. Col. Pete Blaber.

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U.S. Army Green Berets and CIA paramilitary officers with members of the Kurdish Peshmerga. (U.S. Army Special Operations Command)

“It’s funny, when the operational needs are great, as were during the invasion, the headshed usually cares less about imposing rules and restrictions and more about actually winning,” the retired operator added, using military slang for headquarters.

The CIA paramilitary officers, Green Berets, and Delta Force operators showcased the strategic utility that special-operations forces can have, even in a conventional conflict.

Task Force Viking captured the important cities of Mosul, Tikrit, and Kirkuk and secured the nearby oilfields. Equally important, it tied down several Iraqi divisions that could have been deployed to the south to counter the main invasion.

In a reflection of the fierceness of the campaign in the north, the Green Berets of Task Force Viking earned seven Silver Stars and 52 Bronze Stars for Valor — the third- and fourth-highest awards for bravery under fire, respectively — in just a few days of fighting.


This article was written by Stavros Atlamazoglou and originally published on Insider.